The right to receiving education in one’s mother tongue is a civil right and a human right that is stressed in a number of international human rights documents and conventions such as Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, Convention on the Rights of the Child and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Yet, this ordinary human right is not officially recognized in a clear manner by the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and only vaguely referred to as ‘the right to receiving education in one’s mother tongue in addition to the official language of Farsi in schools’ in Article 11 of Iranian Constitution.
The desire to receiving education in one’s mother tongue and the issues that come with it have a long history in Iran, going back to the times of Reza Shah’s monarchy. This natural and democratic will of oppressed ethnic minorities in Iran has constantly been repressed throughout history. Reza Shah who considered it his mission to modernise Iran based on its 2500 royal history, turned the concept of Iranian/Farsi nationalism into an official ideology, in which the only language and culture which had a right to expression was Farsi. It must also be noted that back then the mass media featured music and songs in Turkish, Kurdish and Gilaki languages, but with close supervision and tight restrictions. As soon as the red lines of the policies of the state were crossed, it was followed by very harsh consequences.
After the Islamic Revolution of Iran, due to the fact that ethnic minorities had played a significant role in the realisation of the revolution, and also because the new regime had not established itself as a forceful authority, the Islamic state gave in to the pressure of the communities, and reluctantly alluded to the rights of Iranian minorities in Article 15 of the Constitution.
According to Article 15 of the Constitution, “The official language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian. Official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as text-books, must be in this language and script. However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian”. However, as everyone knows, even this vague article is practically never upheld, forbidding teachings in mother tongues in regions where Farsi is not the primary language. Languages other than Farsi are only used on a limited basis on radio and television, which of course is not intended to promote that particular language and culture, but used as a platform to deliver the governing ideologies and principles of the Islamic regime to non-Farsi nationalities.
The right to speech as well as receiving education in one’s mother tongue is not only a natural right and a human right, but also accepted globally as a political and social right, and based on UNESCO’s manifesto, governments are responsible for ensuring respect for this cultural heritage called language.
On the other hand, one’s mother tongue is considered part of a people’s cultural identity. Child psychologists emphasize on the fact that children first start expressing their emotions in their mother tongue, therefore building their first impression of themselves and their environment in their mother tongue.
The process of learning a mother tongue starts as early as child birth, and during this process, the elements of one’s individual identity start evolving, giving the child the ability to play its part in its community.
Depriving a child of this natural process, kills the child’s ability to learn, and also debilitates them from making natural connection with their environment. Language reflects thoughts, culture, customs and conventions of a people who use their language as a medium of expression.
Based on this, any effort in restricting or preventing the use of one’s mother tongue leads into efforts to exterminate the culture and thoughts of a people.
Iran, a country where its people talk in Farsi, Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Arabic, Baluchi and many more languages, only recognizes Farsi as its official language. People of Azerbaijani, Arab, Kurdish, Baluchi and Turkmen ethnicities not only are deprived of the right to education and cultural, social and political activities in the mother tongue, but also any effort for freedom of express in their mother tongue is considered a crime, such that the prisons of the Islamic Republic of Iran are filled with individuals whose crime is protection of their mother tongue and their culture. Currently, one of the social predicaments of the Ministry of Education of Iran is out-of-school children (excluded) and drop in quality of learning in higher education. According to available statistics, the highest number of drop in quality of learning in Iran happens in areas where Farsi is not the mother tongue of the people, resulting in children being forced to learn the alphabets in a language that is not their own. As a result, every year thousands of children drop out of school, and those who stay in education, face a massive drop in the quality of their learning in higher education.
Prohibition of education in one’s mother tongue has resulted in lower levels of learning among students in areas like Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Turkmen Sahra and Baluchistan.
The vital importance of education in mother tongue has caused many non-Fars ethnics to increase their efforts in trying to achieve the right to free education in their mother tongue. Because not only does the right to free education lead to cultural and social development of the people of Iran, but also can play an important role in decreasing ethnic conflicts across the country.
The Islamic Parliament Research Centre has published a report stating that approximately 5 million students have failed their exams over the last 6 years. Experts stress that the majority of these failings have happened in areas where Farsi is not their mother tongue.
In an interview with ‘Khabar Online’, Shirzad Abdollahi, an education expert in Iran, maintains that when children in areas where Farsi is not their mother tongue start school, they face a huge shock which they can never adjust to.
Despite government reports outlining learning predicaments and high number of failures in non-Farsi speaking regions of the country, the government of Iran has never take a practical Step to address the issue. On the contrary, the Iranian government does not tolerate any discussion about education in one’s mother tongue and considers it an essential threat to the system. Yet, in many bilingual and multilingual countries, learning one’s mother tongue is a natural right, and their presence is considered an opportunity to elevate the culture of the nation, and not a threat.
About the writer:
Fakhteh L. Zamani is a Canadian human rights activist of Iranian Azerbaijani origin. She works with international organizations concerning human rights violations of minorities in Iran, increasing overall public awareness of ethnic rights in Iran.